Oceans: A Review

by Jennifer Frazer on May 2, 2010

Do not taunt happy fun mantis shrimp. Trust me. http://www.flickr.com/photos/diverslog/ / CC BY 2.0

There was a cruel irony to the U.S. release of “Oceans”, the latest work by Jacques Perrin, my favorite natural history filmmaker, on Earth Day this year. It was only two days before, on April 20, that an oil rig named Deepwater Horizon exploded in the gulf. Two days later, on Earth Day and Oceans release day, it sank and began leaking oil, precipitating a spill of disastrous and historic proportions.

I will not dwell on the politics or blame for this, except to say I think it is long past time we find something other than oil to power our economy, and that we make this an urgent priority. Whether it comes now or 100 years from now, the oil will eventually run out — there is only so much planet — and helplessly watching the slow-motion but irrevocable poisoning of the Gulf of Mexico is breaking my heart. It must surely also be so for Jacques Perrin.

Last night I finally made it out to see “Oceans”. Though it wasn’t as bad as I feared, given that Disney had got its tentacles on it, it wasn’t as good as it could have been either. That is to say, being a Perrin film, it was still a work of extraordinary natural history film making. It registered a 7-8 on the Audible “Wow!” Scale. But it was not Perrin at the top of his game. He excels when he lets organisms speak for themselves. Here, Pierce Brosnan — yet another Hollywood big-name voiceover artist, though a far less-bad choice than it could have been — does too much of the talking.  Perhaps that’s less his fault than that of the writers. For the most part, the script is the cliche and mind-numbing natural history pablum that’s all too common at your local IMAX theater (and the major reason I think there’s a special circle of hell for the makers of IMAX films who squander the medium with crappy scripts). Natural History narration can be done well and with wit and spirit — Exhibit A would be David Attenborough, but there are a few other notables — but this is not that. The only previous experience I have with Perrin films is when he takes the opposite tack. “Microcosmos” is virtually wordless, and that is a great part of its power. A similar approach here  would certainly have been more effective.

But all that cannot take away from the arresting visuals. Stunning. Poetic. Sensual. French. Let’s face it, folks: There are some things the French do really well, and filmmaking is one of them. The oceans slip by like Dove chocolate (also filmed for the commercials in super-slow mo) as seals swim above and below the water in slinky mammalian sine waves. The silky webbing of the blanket octopus is a fluttering technicolor dreamcoat. Cuttlefish cast deadly spells by hypnotizing their prey with their LCD skin. The oceans rage in a gale as ships bravely part the waters in a monsoon of spray.

If one of the aims of natural history film making is to capture moments that would be impossible for most of us, with our offices and own offspring to raise, to witness ourselves, then this film is a glowing success. I live in Colorado. Even as a  diver, I may never personally witness the vast majority of what I saw in this film. One of the big wows was — for the first time ever for me — watching a blue whale feed, the accordion throat of a half-block sized animal fully inflated. In another scene, humpback whales blowing bubble nets rise to the surface like sandworms with mouths agape, their throats so close and clear you could see the pink frills of some sea parasite or algae sprouting from them like the frothy collars of 18th century men’s shirts. And then there was the smackdown between a crab and perhaps the most bad-*** mantis shrimp ever captured on film. You could practically hear him, before he viciously sucker punched the defeated crab, cry, “I am not a shrimp! I am a king prawn!”

So my advice remains the same: Go. See Oceans. Rejoice. And do what you can to help protect them. Three biggies are: use less plastic, don’t eat endangered critters or seafood that’s irresponsibly caught, and reduce your carbon footprint. Here’s a start on the second with a wallet card you can easily print out and carry with you for those last-minute seafood orders.” Here’s a start on the second with an iPhone app or wallet card you can easily print out and carry with you for those last-minute seafood orders.

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May 3, 2010 at 4:45 pm

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Cristina May 3, 2010 at 4:01 am

Interesting review… I wonder if the narration will be as heavy handed in the original. I’ll be seeing it soon in Spanish, but I’ll eventually get hold of a dvd where I can appreciate the original work. I haven’t seen any of Perrin’s other works in anything other than French, but I did contrast March of the Penguins in French and the Dinseyfied English version… not at all the same movie! Much less original, much less inspiring (the English).

Charles V. Packer May 3, 2010 at 7:29 am

What is the size range of the organisms shown in the movie?
At the larger end it’s the blue whale, for sure, but what
is the size of the smallest animals? I believe they are
microscopic, or at most, millimeter-sized. If this is correct,
then their motions certainly must have been shown in slow-mo.
To the extent that slow-motion is used in the movie — and
I think it is used extensively — it illustrates a principle of
universality in the motion of organisms: that there is a
time scale for viewing any organism that makes its motions
“feel” like human movements. For brevity I won’t consider the
implications here, but I can’t help thinking about the
prescience of all those Disney animators of the 1940s and 50s:
they didn’t imagine, so much as report on things they had
never seen…

Jennifer Frazer May 3, 2010 at 11:44 am

There’s a broken link in this post but I can’t seem to get it fixed in the original. The correct link for the seafood wallet card/iPhone app is here.

I understand the French version also has a lot of narration with Jacques Perrin and his grandson. Not sure what Jacques was thinking or if that’s also as cheesy as it sounds. Please do report back if you see it and let us know what you think. As for March of the Penguins, I’d be interested to see the original, if only I could understand French well. : ( Three years of high school French just won’t cut it . . . The English version didn’t impress me much. I felt it was only an average TV-quality nature documentary. Perhaps the original would change my mind.

As for the size range — they did show some echinoderm embryos and a crustacean egg toward the beginning, but I assumed they were relatively immotile and didn’t need slowing down. For cilliates and flagellates, yes, I can say from experience slow motion helps! Those suckers are fast.

And I still marvel at the beautiful (if artistically liscensed) work of the animators who illustrated the Rite of Spring for Fantasia . . .

Charles V. Packer May 5, 2010 at 6:10 am

Because there were few clues to the size scales, I had to guess at the sizes of the organisms that were unfamiliar to me. I realized that a smooth exterior was a clue to smallness as was absence of any turbidity in the water. In fact, I’m wondering if the tiny organisms were actually filmed in an aquarium where the environment could be more controlled.

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